Profile: Artist Jitish Kallat

(Images via Google Images)

You enter a room, the walls of which are plastered with photographs depicting the waxing and waning of the moon. Look closer, and you realise that the moons are, in fact, progressively eaten rotis. The installation, which requires you to navigate the various twists and turns in the room, takes you through 22,400 such roti-moons. Jitish Kallat’s Epilogue is a journey that mirrors his father’s life told through the various moons he saw in his 62 years. The viewer sets out on this journey along with the artist and unknowingly becomes part of a story that binds the celestial and the common in an unusual way.

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Unusual. That is the keyword that presents itself in most of Kallat’s works. It transforms the mundane nature of everyday things by placing them in unusual settings. Like debris and urban clutter growing on the head of a few Mumbai boys (his Eclipse series), or the series of skeletal vehicles built from incinerated cars and bikes he saw in the images of various riots in the country (Collindonthus), or wheatgrass sprouting from the bodies of sleeping dogs (Prosody of a Pulse Rate). Or his much-acclaimed Public Notice series, in which he recreates historic speeches of Gandhi, Nehru and Swami Vivekananda, sometimes in bone-like alphabets, sometimes as letters forming on a film of mist and sometimes as multi-coloured LED writings on staircases.

The thought is simple, sometimes too familiar even, and it all lies in the details. It is as if Kallat—who is curating the latest edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale—is playing mind games with his audience. You cannot walk away from his work with just one glance as it lends itself to many interpretations at closer inspection.

Ever so polite and affable, Kallat smiles warmly in response to my amateur reading of his works. It is amusing, he says, to listen to what his work means to different people. “Just this morning, someone told me that they noticed a running theme of time in all my works,” says the 40-year-old. “I think themes of time, our mortality, the skies and the historical moment are all things I go back to. All of these intervene and interlink through my work.”

A fine arts graduate from Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, Kallat has worked with everything from resin to lead to create paintings, sculptures, video projections and installations. French art dealer Daniel Templon, who has represented some of the world’s biggest artists, from Andy Warhol to Willem de Kooning, said in a recent interview that Kallat was one of the “very few artists in the world who work in so many different directions… and all the directions are so strong and assured”. Sahej Rahal, who won this year’s Forbes Award for debut solo show, agrees: “What I find most enigmatic about Jitish’s work is that he deploys an amazing precision that flows from the intimate to the cosmological, while constantly ringing back home to the city of Bombay.” Compliments such as these bring out the “middle-class Malayali boy” in Kallat. Despite being brought up in fast-paced Mumbai and having travelled the world with his work, there is still an inherent awkwardness on being praised.


The theme of simplicity that runs through Kallat’s creative pursuits seems to spill over into his sartorial choices. Dressed in a plain, black, full-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, he speaks slowly and clearly, pausing after every few words to make sure that you are on the same page. There are no huge words, long-winding sentences or pretentious pauses. Confident, yet soft-spoken, Kallat is the classic antithesis of the popular image of the artist—flamboyant, careless and self-obsessed.

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The founders of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, artists Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari, were on the lookout for such an exotic mix of immense international exposure and a sense of rootedness in one’s own culture and history. “That is the whole theme of the biennale,” says Komu, director of programmes, KMB. “We wanted to continue the legacy of keeping the biennale an artist-curated project. And we were confident that Jitish would be capable of curating an innovative and experiential biennale as he has sound theoretical knowledge about contemporary art and the backing of a diverse yet meticulous approach to his own practice.”

From the little boy who was enamoured by the sprawling billboards in Mumbai to being the first contemporary Indian artist to have a solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago, Kallat’s journey has been nothing short of phenomenal. At art school, he turned to fine arts not by choice but by accident, as he couldn’t make the cut for his desired field—applied arts. The numerous biology sketches he drew for his older sister and her friends, in what he calls “domestic outsourcing”, could be the reason for his well-honed drawing skills, says Kallat. “But as soon as I started college, I knew I had found the exact space that I wanted to be in,” he says. “I fell in love with the smell of oil paints that wafted across the corridors of art school.” When he was 22, his student work was sold to Deutsche Bank and the next year he held his first solo show called PTO at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road Gallery. Kallat’s work, which hung on the walls of Deutsche Bank, paved the way for his first international show and his later works have been exhibited at many reputable galleries, including Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris and San Jose Museum Of Art in California.

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In 2008, his installation, Collindonthus, was acquired by leading English art collector Frank Cohen for Rs73 lakh. From then, Kallat has retained his position on top when it comes to numbers. He has now taken a break from his practice to curate the biennale, which will kick off on December 12 and go on for 108 days across eight venues. It was a phone call, says Kallat, which made him move from his studio in Mumbai to the seaside town of Fort Kochi. Eight of his friends and colleagues, who were part of the advisory committee of the project, asked him on a call put on speaker mode whether he would curate the project. “I just simply said yes,” he says with a laugh. The call got disconnected because of faulty network and suddenly the gravity of what he had committed to hit Kallat. By the time they called back, he was asking for more time to make up his mind. “So everybody jokingly and seriously said, ‘one day’, and that was it,” he says. He cleared out his diary and, “after some self-reflection”, decided to give it a go.

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The theme that Kallat and the 90-odd artists will be working on this time is titled Whorled Explorations. The idea is to make the site not the subject, but an observation or viewing deck. “A location through which one can think of the world,” explains Kallat. “I would say the project is site responsive rather than site specific. It will draw from the site and speak about the world from there.”
Rahal says he was overjoyed and intimidated when he read Kallat’s curatorial note for the biennale. “I felt that he had charted out a playfield of ideas that was spanning space, time and everything in between, it was almost like entering a game set to unfold on a civilisational scale,” he says. “But what was really amazing was that Jitish has held the entire project together with an infectious sense of lightness and humour!”
While the first biennale concentrated on the larger history of the site, Kallat has tried to bring in the theme of universality this time, feels Krishnamachari. “We will be revisiting some of the themes explored in the first edition through completely different lenses of science and cosmology.”

Although the biennale opened up contemporary art to the common man in a manner never seen before, recording over four lakh footfalls in its first edition, it is still struggling to find its feet. Government funding this time has dropped to Rs1 crore from Rs9 crore last time and the team has started a crowdfunding campaign to raise the remaining funds. Kallat, however, is confident that the biennale will overcome all these hurdles. “There is a poetry to this. While the rest of the global art world seems to be overmanaged, institutionalised and supported top down, this biennale is struggling to grow from the ground.” The real strength of the project, he says, is its fragility.
Relishing the wider view of the skies from his new home in Fort Kochi, Kallat says life is pretty much the same. Just that the early morning jogs with his nine-year-old son, Ahaan, have shifted from Bandra’s Jogger’s Park to the waterfront here. The transition was smoother because his wife, Reena Saini, whom he met in art school, is also a practising artist.

The last biennale has set the ground for people to think about the world through art and Kallat believes this edition will push the envelope with the additional programmes such as children’s biennale, student’s biennale, artists’ cinema and revival of traditional art forms. “We usually use language to make sense of the world,” says Kallat. “But projects like the biennale widen horizons. Even in very young children, it can alter perceptions. That is the force of art.”

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